What draws people to come to religious services?
It’s a question that has bedeviled clergy and dedicated lay leaders over the last few decades as more and more people leave organized religion. Sometimes people argue that churches and synagogues need to embrace the latest flashy trends. Others argue that deep commitment and tradition are what will draw people in.
A recent Washington Post article by Rachel Held Evans made a strong argument that especially for millennials, “coolness” is emphatically not what they are looking for. As she says, in talking about her experience with church,
My friend and blogger Amy Peterson put it this way: “I want a service that is not sensational, flashy, or particularly ‘relevant.’ I can be entertained anywhere. At church, I do not want to be entertained. I do not want to be the target of anyone’s marketing. I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.”…
In other words, a church can have a sleek logo and Web site, but if it’s judgmental and exclusive, if it fails to show the love of Jesus to all, millennials will sniff it out. Our reasons for leaving have less to do with style and image and more to do with substantive questions about life, faith and community. We’re not as shallow as you might think.
Evans, then, is firmly in the “traditional” camp, and on some level, I think she is correct. Shallowness and inauthenticity can be deadly for a spiritual community.
But she also misses an important point — in our world filled with almost unlimited choice, people vote with their most precious resources: their time, money and energy. Indeed, the study of economics is all about how we allocate scarce resources, and so our houses of worship are, in fact, competing for people’s limited time and attention, and so branding, outreach and effective communication cannot be ignored.
In fact, I think discussions about “coolness” are red herrings. Instead, what we need to talk about is “quality.” I don’t think “coolness” ultimately helps or harms a synagogue. Yes, it might turn some people off, but for me personally, I crave a relevant service, I enjoy good food at my oneg, and I like some technology in my services.
But what I really want is quality — quality relationships, quality programs, quality atmosphere, quality praying, quality studying.
Indeed, people are drawn to excellence, and driven away by mediocrity. Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, in his book Empowered Judaism, discusses how success breeds success, but pleas for involvement often sounds like desperation. As he notes, “[while t]he guilt-trip form of volunteer recruitment — the “world will fall down without you” mode of motivating volunteers — makes each volunteer feel very important, it also sends the message that the entire volunteer enterprise hangs by a thread.” (28)
Instead, when there is vibrancy, connection and excellence, people are inherently drawn in. And that desire for high quality can appear in a variety of ways — from how the room is set up, to how people are greeted when they come in, to how engaging the services are, to how robust the youth group is.
Evans is absolutely right is that people are seeking authenticity. But even more so, I think people are looking for quality. In a world where we can easily select the best of whatever we want and reject whatever we don’t want, we need to strive for excellence in everything we do.
Why? Because quality isn’t necessarily about the latest approaches to engaging people. It’s a mindset. It’s a way of approaching all we do. And it’s deeply inspiring.
Most importantly, though, quality simply can’t be faked.
(This post first appeared on My Jewish Learning’s Rabbis Without Borders blog).